The basketball face off between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem is a clash between Old Money Nation and Start-up Nation.

Hapoel Jerusalem owner Ori Allon will have to wait at least one more year to realize his dream of seeing the team play in the Euroleague (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Jerusalem owner Ori Allon will have to wait at least one more year to realize his dream of seeing the team play in the Euroleague
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
For years, it was a weekly ritual unique to the Jewish state.
Every Thursday night, traffic dwindled and streets emptied as the country turned into a vast sports bar with millions huddling around TV sets in living rooms, cafés, hotel lobbies, kibbutz dining rooms and military bases cheering and jeering with the game’s ups and downs as eternal basketball champion Maccabi Tel Aviv brandished the Davidic slingshots with which it floored European giants and fueled national pride.
Maccabi – as it is commonly called in disregard of countless other Maccabi clubs in Israeli sports – offered a society reeling from the trauma of the Yom Kippur War a throwback to the previous decade’s universal celebration of Israeli chutzpa, sacrifice and success.
The team’s Israeli identity was not just technical. It was Israeli in its character.
As its golden age dawned, Maccabi wielded a unique combination of Israeli-born hustlers and well-schooled American Jews. Led by the relatively short shooting guard Miki Berkovich (1.93 meters) and point guards Motti Aroesti (1.87 m) and Tal Brody (1.87 m), the team compensated with spirit, speed and teamwork for what they lacked in height ‒ stealing balls from under opponents’ knees, sending long balls for lightning-speed fastbreaks and unsheathing unexpected assists.
It was the kind of playmaking that reminded many of the can-do spirit with which the Jewish state faced its existential challenges.
Moreover, the Americans on the team were mostly Jews and also unabashed Zionists, who spoke Hebrew and often married Israeli- born women.
Maccabi’s Harvard-educated center Lou Silver mastered Hebrew well enough to earn a law degree at Tel Aviv University, where teammate Bob Griffin became an English Literature professor. Brody was so much a of a Zionist that when he joined Maccabi, he gave up an NBA career the Baltimore Bullets offered him on a silver platter as the 1965 draft’s No. 12 pick.
Such were some of the heroes of the team whose victory in winter 1977 over Soviet champion CSKA Moscow rocked the country, which felt it dealt a blow to the Russian Bear that was persecuting Soviet Jewry and would not play in the Jewish state. News, two months on, of Maccabi’s winning the European championship itself was so entrancing that it overshadowed the same evening’s breaking story of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation.
It was a watershed moment in the history of Israeli sports, whose national basketball team – dominated by Maccabi’s stars – two years later won second place in Europe. It took another 15 years for other Israeli sports to reach comparable achievements when Israeli judokas, rowers and sailors began winning Olympic medals.
In June, basketball once again sent Israelis to the streets dancing, only now the cause of the celebration was not the yellow-shirted Maccabi’s defeat of the Red empire, but another red-shirted team’s eclipse of another fallen empire – Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Hapoel Jerusalem has become the yellow squad’s archrival over the past two decades, during which it won second place seven times and lost seven cup finals, all to Maccabi.
Though it won four State Cups and one secondary European title, Jerusalem had never won a league championship.
Now, having benefitted from unassuming Hapoel Eilat’s stunning defeat of Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs’ semifinal, Jerusalem hosted Eilat for a final game in the capital’s brand new Pais Arena, after winning the series opener down south. Though Jerusalem was trailing at halftime, it soon seized control of the game before winning by 20 points ‒ capping its 15-point victory in the previous game.
The packed auditorium’s 11,000 fans erupted volcanically in a jubilation befitting a long overdue epiphany, taking their delirium to City Hall’s Safra Square where they were joined by an even bigger multitude whose celebration spilled to the surrounding pubs and continued to early dawn.
For many, Jerusalem’s victory was the second reason to celebrate ‒ the first was Tel Aviv’s defeat. The team that had once epitomized Israeli patriotism and Jewish solidarity has since gone in new directions as the national unifier became a national divider.
Having won 51 of Israel’s 61 national championships and 42 of 55 State Cups while reaching the European Cup 15 times and winning it six, Maccabi’s list of titles is longer than those of legendary dynasties like the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens and Manchester United.
One might, therefore, suspect that the club’s failure to win this year’s title is but a one-off glitch ‒ like Hapoel Upper Galilee’s championship in 1993, which did little other than separate between Maccabi’s 23 straight titles until that year and the 14 that followed it.
But this year’s defeat is no glitch.
Just like Maccabi’s hegemony followed the 1960s, a decade whose titles it split evenly with then-archrival Hapoel Tel Aviv, this year’s championship loss is the club’s fourth in eight seasons. Evidently, an era has ended after Maccabi abandoned its historic formula and unwittingly allowed the emergence of a true rival.
THE FORMULA change was about nationalism’s replacement by commercialism.
What began with the patriotic enlistment of Diaspora Jews and welding them with fighting Sabras gave way to the enlistment of non-Jews, some of whom underwent dubious conversions to become instant Israelis, and some of whom saw their Israeli stints as little more than temporary career moves of the sort they could make in Madrid, Berlin or Rome.
For any member of that foreign legion to shout into the cameras, as Brody did seconds after the victory over CSKA, “We are on the map, and we are staying on the map, not only in basketball but in everything!” – a heartfelt yelp that voiced an entire nation’s euphoria and inspired its sense of purpose – became unthinkable.
Foreigners’ enlistment was not invented by Maccabi. Pioneered by Italian teams, it was one of globalization’s harbingers, a trend that eventually reversed course and landed Europeans, including Israelis, in the NBA. However, Maccabi practiced player importation better than any Israeli club because it was much better financed and managed.
Even before formally changing its status in 1995 from a non-profit to a privately held company, Maccabi was a well-oiled financial engine fed by the Federman and Recanati families, two pillars of Israel’s corporate aristocracy.
With the Federmans at the time controlling chocolate-and-coffee giant Elite, and to this day the Dan hotels, and the Recanatis dominating at the time Bank Discount, Maccabi enjoyed Elite’s sponsorship for 40 years. In addition, the team benefitted from brisk ticket sales for its 11,000-seat stadium’s European games, which in turn generated additional advertising and broadcast-rights sales.
It all added up to a kind of purchasing power Maccabi’s opponents could never rival.
Maccabi Itself, at the same time, became financially addicted to its European games.
The local league, meanwhile, became a nuisance that had to be neutralized in order to feed the business machine into which the former national inspiration had morphed.
Now, after having already let down many fans by steadily diluting its Israeli character, Maccabi turned to what its detractors derided as foul play.
Knowing it could buy the most expensive foreign players, Maccabi lobbied to lift restrictions on the number of foreign players and newly nationalized citizens a team could field. At the same time, Maccabi bought other teams’ young Israeli talents and then benched them. This way, Maccabi enjoyed the expensive players it could pay while its poor opponents lost even the cheap, but promising, players they could afford.
WITH AN annual budget of an estimated $20 million, Maccabi was some four times richer than its closest competitors. It was no match.
Attempts to cap player salaries, as the NBA does, were derailed. Maccabi had cornered the market and become a symptom of the disease that plagued other parts of the Israeli economy: monopoly.
In its attitude toward local competition, Maccabi was a version of the ailing monopolies that Egged, Bezeq and the Israel Broadcast Authority once were. Israeli basketball was reduced to a boring contest starring transient foreigners, while condemning local talents to anonymity and decline.
Sports fans felt robbed and, increasingly, grew resentful of Maccabi and its tactics, fingering its perennial chairman, Shimon Mizrahi.
A stout, stern-faced and humorless lawyer, who had been a criminal investigator in the IDF with the rank of colonel, the 76-year-old Mizrahi is known throughout Israel because his trademark Sphinx head is always visible immediately behind, and sometimes alongside, Maccabi’s bench, a habit for which the team has occasionally been fined.
Omnipresent and all powerful, Mizrahi has been Maccabi’s version of George Steinbrenner, the outspoken, longtime owner of baseball’s Yankees until his death in 2010.
Mizrahi is alive and well, and his poker face and rare public statements are the antithesis of Steinbrenner’s flamboyance. Yet, having been at the heart of Maccabi’s operations for the past 46 years, first as general manager and then as chairman, Mizrahi is part of Tel Aviv’s cityscape and also its flagship sports club’s punching bag.
Scion of a family that fused Greek Jewish merchants with Baghdadi rabbis, and grandson of a prominent banker in Ottoman-era Jaffa, Mizrahi married into the Greek Jewish Carasso clan, one of Israel’s wealthiest families thanks to a car import business that harks back to the British Mandate. The marriage ended in divorce, but Mizrahi’s position at the heart of the Sephardi moneyed elite remained solid, as did Maccabi’s image as a brainchild, mascot and servant of big business.
It was against this backdrop that Mizrahi’s perfect antithesis entered the scene along with the most organized, endowed and motivated challenge his sporting enterprise’s hegemony ever faced.
Ori Allon is a hi-tech entrepreneur less than half Mizrahi’s age. Born in Jerusalem to a journalist and a sculptor, Allon grew up in the middle-class suburb of Mevaseret Zion, a light year from the coastal plutocracy that was Mizrahi’s milieu.
At the age which Mizrahi began buying and selling players while dining with the Carassos, Racanatis, and Federmans, Allon earned a computer science PhD at Australia’s New South Wales University and created the algorithms that fueled the two search engines he conceived ‒ Orion and Julpan ‒ which were soon bought by Google and Twitter, respectively.
These private deals, estimated to have totaled together hundreds of millions of dollars, gave Allon access to the kind of fortune that he had never seen and Mizrahi had never earned. It was with this capital in hand that Allon, who now splits his time between Israel and the US, set out to do with Hapoel Jerusalem what Mizrahi did with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The faceoff is, in effect, a clash between Old Money Nation and Start-up Nation.
ALLON, WHO r ecently l aunched h is o wn venture capital fund after creating a New York-based online real estate brokerage firm that quickly raised $40 million, is challenging Mizrahi at his own game: money.
Having arrived at this scene only two years ago with several partners, he quickly furnished his team with $15 million, 75 percent of Maccabi’s budget, and the numbers may yet grow. No Israeli club ever came close to challenging Maccabi with such ammunition.
Yet, Allon is waving something else besides cash ‒ a sword that once was Maccabi’s secret weapon: spirit. What nationalism was for yesteryear’s Maccabi, localism is now for Hapoel Jerusalem. That is why the team made sure to field more Israelis, two of whom, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin, became its spearheads after Maccabi had shed them for foreigners.
It’s part of something bigger.
After decades of living in the shadow of a Tel Aviv that derided the capital as religious, poor and anachronistic, Jerusalem is undergoing a secularist renaissance highlighted by new theaters, festivals, trendy cafés, ethnic restaurants and late-night bars. Allon, his basketball enterprise, and its success are part of this new vibe whose energy is a priceless multiplier for Hapoel’s newly found wealth.
Allon says he and his partners are in for the long haul, and that the championship, in fact, arrived ahead of their schedule.
Jerusalem’s newly opened, silver-domed sporting shrine by the Malha Mall, with a capacity equal to Maccabi’s Menorah Mivtachim Arena, promises additional cash flow of the sort Tel Aviv’s rivals cannot muster.
Long-term investments in young, Israeli talent promise to nurture the sense of continuity and local identity Maccabi has long neglected.
Hapoel Jerusalem has yet to be admitted to the Euroleague, the continent’s superior framework where Maccabi, thanks to Mizrahi’s contractual skills, will play next year despite its dismal performance at home.
Even so, Allon is eager to lead it there and once there to replace Maccabi as Israel’s No. 1 basketball club.
It will take several years to judge his success.It should not take years, however, to judge Allon’s seriousness about his childhood love, Hapoel Jerusalem. It’s his new start-up.